Recently, the Steiny Road Poet had the pleasure of seeing the Tom Volf film Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words.
First, let’s define diva.
According to the Free Dictionary:
1. An operatic prima donna.
2. A very successful singer of nonoperatic music: a jazz diva.
3. SlangOne who demands that attention be paid to his or her needs, especially without regard to anyone else's needs or feelings.
Operatic prima donna? Check, this is Maria Callas.
A very successful singer of nonoperatic music? Yes, Steiny would put Gertrude Stein, the lyric poet and creator of multiple opera libretti in this category.
One who demands that attention be paid to his or her needs, especially without regard to anyone else's needs or feelings? This slang definition is what the film Maria by Callas fights against. This definition is also how Gertrude Stein’s behavior was characterized by her critics. Current day diva supreme is POTUS 45.
DIVAS AND THEIR TRUTHS
While Callas emphasizes truth telling, the film, as assembled by the adoring filmmaker Volf, works hard to avoid complete disclosure about her life. Certainly encouraged by her pushy mother, Callas admits to living the lie that she was 18 years old, so she could enter a music conservatory in Athens, Greece (she was 13). Until 1953, Callas, who stood 5’ 8 ½“ tall, weighed 200 lbs. In the film, there is no hint that she presented in any other way except as a svelte, attractive woman. While she does not avoid revealing how, in 1959, she separated from Giovanni Meneghini, her husband of ten years, saying he was drunk on her fame (he managed her career during their marriage), the scant information about her
relationship with Aristotle Onassis provokes questions. For example, in 1966 she renounced her US citizenship. Was this because she anticipated marrying Onassis?
Steiny gathers from information found outside the film that the only way she could end her Roman Catholic marriage with Meneghini was to be exclusively a Greek citizen. Under Greek law, Greeks married outside the Greek Orthodox Church are not married. Some of Callas’ biographers claim she had at least one abortion during the time she was seeing Onassis.
Several times during the film, Callas remarked that she would have given up her career for a family of her own. In a surprise move which Callas learned about by reading the newspapers, Onassis, however, married Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. However, Onassis continued his affair with Callas, not letting the marriage to Jackie stop him.
OTHER AFFAIRS OF THE HEART
Giving up her career might have been a serious consideration for Callas since subtle changes in her voice and its range started as early as the mid 1950’s after her drastic weight loss. Her death in 1977 at the age of 53 at her apartment in Paris was due to a heart attack possibly caused by the steroids and immunosuppressants she took for dermatomyositis, a long-term inflammatory disorder which affects muscles including the larynx (also known as the voice box).
But no matter about what was not told in Volk’s biopic of Maria Callas, the selected material was thoroughly engaging, and her performances made Steiny understand why this dramatic soprano who sang bel canto was legendary. When Callas sang Carmen’s “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (also known as the “Habanera”), her voice, facial expressions, and her moving body lifted the bar so high on this aria that Steiny believes the performance has not ever been matched. Also, Steiny should add that Carmen is typically cast as a mezzo-soprano. Callas had tremendous range at the height of her career.
So yes, Maria Callas was indeed a diva, a diva who was cremated and buried at Pere LaChaise Cemetery, the final resting place of Gertrude Stein. However, the remains of Callas were stolen from the Pere LaChaise columbarium and therefore, when her urn was recovered, her keepers then in 1979 scattered her ashes in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece in keeping with her final wishes.